Want To Be More Creative? Get Angry.

The surprising effects emotions can have on creative performance

Dawn Teh
Dawn Teh
Nov 1, 2019 · 3 min read
Credits: Philipp Mandler/Unsplash

How do you envision yourself in your optimal creative state? Happy? In “the zone”? Experts have long-held the belief that positive emotions encourage creativity, while negative emotions stifle it.

And this belief is frequently applied at the organizational level as well. Businesses are always striving to create happy work environments, in the hopes that it’ll increase employee creativity. Just look at all the perks enjoyed by Google employees.

But recent research published in The Journal of Creative Behavior is challenging the belief that creativity only flourishes when we’re happy. How our emotions influence our creative abilities is a lot more complicated.

“The popular notion that creativity is universally enhanced when employees experience pleasantly toned, high‐arousal states like happiness, excitement, and inspiration may be misguided”, the researchers write.

They explain that we can think of emotional states in terms of their level of tone (i.e. pleasant vs. unpleasant) and arousal (i.e. high vs. low). And different emotional states correspond to varying levels of tone and arousal. So happiness is a pleasant tone, high arousal state. While sadness is an unpleasant tone, low arousal state.

Interestingly, it’s not just the emotional states themselves that affect creativity. Changes or “shifts” in how we feel can have a different effect from just being in a constant emotional state. So being consistently happy, as opposed to being sad then happy, can result in different creative performance.

In their study, participants read stories to influence their mood. In some conditions, participants read stories that prompted consistent emotional states, while other story conditions prompted emotional shifts. They then completed a creative problem-solving task that involved coming up with ideas on how to turnaround a failing company.

They found that participants had the best creative outcomes when consistently relaxed or when they shifted to an angry state. Additionally, they were least creative when shifting to happy or sad states.

So paradoxically, it seems that there is such a thing as being too happy in terms of producing your best creative work. “While unpleasant, low‐arousal states such as sadness and depression should be avoided, efforts aimed at inspiring employee creativity by increasing pleasant affect may actually inhibit creativity if arousal levels are pushed too high,” the researchers write. “In contrast, a stable organizational environment, marked by a consistent, mild, and pleasant state of affect, may help calibrate arousal levels within the “sweet spot” needed for employees to devote the necessary cognitive resources to produce their most creative work.”

As for unpleasant tone, high arousal (i.e. angry) states, the results suggest that uncomfortable feelings have their place in the creativity too. The authors gave the example that if critical feedback from a boss is causing you to feel annoyed, it may not be a bad thing. It may be the mental and emotional shift you needed to spark a creative burst.

“This is not to suggest that organizations ought to upset their employees intentionally to see more creativity. Rather, the findings suggest the need for a more nuanced view of the role of unpleasantly toned, high‐arousal states in the workplace,” the researchers write.

So thankfully, we won’t need to induce ourselves into a hulk-green rage to maximize our creative output. But it does go to show that just as creative processes can often be messy and dynamic, so too are the feelings that go along with it. The next time you encounter a problem that’s making you feel a little ticked-off, you can take it as a sign that you might be on track for a creative eureka moment.

Dawn Teh

Written by

Dawn Teh

Health content writer | Former psychologist writing about how we think, feel, connect and thrive. Let's talk: dawn.teh@pennedcopywrite.com

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